Wind was coming in waves. Not gusts. Up over the beach it pounded. Whining and rattling on through the rotten struts of the ravaged roller coaster. The second drop was the steepest, the beams looking like they’d knock your head off if you didn’t duck.
Because the wind was a northeasterly it then slanted across acres of wasteland, where once stood a go-kart track, so he’d heard, and later an oil supply ship depot. Now razed, the contaminated ground was waiting for the super casino. It had been some wait already. Boom.
The wind was as wet and raw as the North Sea. June for you, in this part of the world. Picking up strength over land, it shot across South Beach Parade before funnelling through the potholed streets of boarded-up pubs, the odd, dismal line of small terraced houses
and endless semi-industrial buildings. There were a few Victorian warehouses and smokehouses still standing, including his mother’s – theirs.
‘Forget it,’ Zach said aloud, shaking his head in the storm, the storm of ages, not sure what he meant, what was happening to time. But there was no one to hear him anyway. No one was in sight. He scanned the road, the nearby buildings, the wind watering his eyes. Shadows creeping out from the dying night. ‘Waster,’ he shouted. He’d been left out on his tod, high and dry. ‘High, high.’ Not funny.
Even less of a joke was the fact that his car was at the other end of town – as if he’d have been able to drive. His head was buzzing. His stomach churning on empty.
Unclenching the fingers of his right hand, he reached into the front pocket of his jeans for his phone. He wanted not the time but the way out of here, even though part of his brain must have known exactly where he was. They were his streets, his history, how it was passed on from generation to generation. Nevertheless his internal GPS was not as acute as it should have been. Bollocks. His eyes were too watery to read the screen.
He shifted across the street, took shelter against a tall, cold building. The brick was damp and flaky. He thought of wet chalk, his first school, pissing on his chair. Being dragged to the toilets in front of the whole class. But it wasn’t chalk, it was brick, whatever brick was made of. Clay? Sand and clay? He could feel it rubbing on to his jacket. A car swept along South Beach Parade, the beam from its headlights illuminating the side street for a few seconds, making him realise how few streetlamps were working in this part of town. Were they searching for him? The bag of gear? The Candy Cane. He liked that riff, not that he’d come up with the name, yet another for roughly the same chemical compound. It was all in the marketing, the image.
Back in darkness he pushed off from the wall, braced himself for the wind. Wind like he’d never felt before. Hurricane force. He couldn’t spend the rest of the night here. There had to be an all-night caff somewhere, for the supply vessel operators, the power station workers, the hookers. The hookers serving the seamen, and warehouse operators, the few leisure industry employees, the many gangsters, all night, all day.
There was a twenty-four-hour caff, over on South Denes Road, a short way on from the old Goodwin Enterprises offices, he remembered. The town that never slept – his dad’s lame line. It couldn’t be far, just across the spit, which was made of sand, not chalk. Piss on sand and it washed away. Geography at school. Maybe he’d learned something, when he wasn’t being dragged to the toilets.
He set off with his back to the wind, suddenly having more than a clue as to where he was. His head clearing with every step, his heartbeat calming. There were still not enough streetlamps. Few working security lights. Too much gear in his system. The dawn was struggling hard to make its mark.
His footsteps were being drowned out by the wind, but he was sure he could hear others. Someone gaining on him. His friends. Friends? Another big fucking joke. He’d kill them. He’d lost the Candy Cane, hundreds of tabs of MDMA, but he still had some bump. Bumpty bump. Boom, boom. They’d be circling, waiting to pounce. They were always up for it, man. Desperados. He knew how to control himself, that he had to keep his wits about him. Look who he was, master of these mean streets. It was a family thing, wasn’t it, Master Goodwin? Yes, sir. Smack in the head.
He’d begun jogging, on the excuse of a pavement, beside a long chain-link fence. Chain-link fencing everywhere, like he was in a massive prison. He stepped up the pace. Running, it was a song he liked, but the tune wasn’t coming. However, South Denes Road was opening up nicely ahead, and the further from the sea he went, the quieter the wind became. He could almost smell the river, the diesel, the decades of decay. That was another of his dead dad’s phrases, the decades of decay, always said with a smirk.
Zach stopped by the corner of Suffling Road and South Denes Road. Glanced back towards the dark streets – some sort of barrier between him and the wild North Sea. He found he was reaching out, his hands held forward. An orange glow had appeared like magic. It was rising, flickering above the mass of buildings. The sun?
‘The sun has got its hat on, it’s coming out to play. Hip, hip hooray.’ Was he at nursery school now? He couldn’t remember whether he’d gone to nursery school, or not. His mum must have looked after him at some point, when he was young. His mum and an au pair, one of the endless. She’d never have been able to cope on her own – not then.
It wasn’t the sun. He was looking back up Suffling Road, the rambling roofline. The orange glow was higher, and brighter, already. Was that a thickening cloud of smoke set against the first whispers of dawn?
Something was on fire. Zach smacked his head. Bingo, dingo. A warehouse. A smokehouse. The Smokehouse. Desperado.
‘They could have told me earlier,’ Tatty shouted into the ether. She was on Haven Bridge, the sun skimming the Yare below. The river was being whipped up into a flurry by the wind. Yet the sky couldn’t have been brighter, her mood darker.
‘The authorities round here?’ Frank said, his voice coming through the car’s sound system. ‘On a Sunday?’
Zach had finally fixed the Bluetooth link-up for her after she’d been caught on the phone while driving for the second time in two months. The traffic cop, Yarmouth’s one and only, let her off the first time, recognising her, though not the second time. He’d pay for that one day.
‘You know the score,’ Frank was saying.
‘Don’t give me that monkeys again. Where were they?’
‘You don’t know how much damage has been done. It might not be so bad. We’ll need to get inside. There’s a cordon. They’re not letting anyone near for now. The roof might collapse, what’s left of it – so they’re saying.’
‘Why did they call you first, Frank?’ She was still stuck on the bridge, the lights taking a millennium. Everything taking a millennium today.
‘You checked your phone?’
‘I can’t, I’m driving. Hands free.’ She said it almost proudly, but it had always seemed such a stupid expression. Her hands weren’t free, they were on the wheel. She wished they were round someone’s neck.
‘You didn’t answer when I first rang at – what was it, six a.m.?’ Frank said. ‘Maybe you were asleep. Couldn’t be woken. Happy as Larry in La La Land.’
‘What’re you talking about? Something like this? Course I’d get up.’ Though she knew it was a strong possibility that she’d been out for the count – sleeping, not like Larry the lamb, but a baby. ‘Who’s there?’ The lights changed, Tatty accelerated, hanging right, past what was Barclays and the Star Hotel, still boarded up. There were few other vehicles, no pedestrians. The quay was a slew of sparkling granite cobbles, though bare of a living thing.
‘The fire service, en masse. Some uniform. No bigwigs, that I can see. Took them a while to check the building was clear of people.’
‘Of course it’s clear of people. It’s an office block, on a Sunday morning.’
‘Even so.’ He cleared his throat, or perhaps it was a gust of wind that she could hear. ‘Tatty, you’re not thinking straight. How do these things start?’
‘Round here? Yeah – see your point,’ she said, a new dawn dawning. ‘I’m a couple of minutes away.’ She ended the call by firmly pressing a button on the steering wheel. The very week they were to move offices. She couldn’t believe it.
As South Quay turned into Southgates Road, and then swiftly into South Denes Road, Tatty thought of Nathan Taylor. Silly, needy, Nathan, who’d nevertheless done a good job converting the old property first into a series of live/work spaces, which were always going to be more live than work – it was a council tax thing – then a state-of-the-art office complex. Not that Goodwin Enterprises had too many official employees. It was the statement that mattered, the fact that Tatty wanted a break from the past. Looks counted. Plus, she needed to spend some cash quick. Make it look like that anyway.
She swung across the road sharply, taking Suffling Road north. The sun was not creeping over the horizon but blasting straight at the windscreen, low and hard and with more than a hint that summer was around the corner, even here. She slowed well before Fenner Road, lowering the driver’s window. She could smell the smoke, the ash, her ruined ambition, on the steady breeze.
Frank had said that he was parked up on the corner of South Beach Parade and Salmon Road, and that Salmon Road was blocked off. The Smokehouse stretched along Fenner Road to Salmon Road. It didn’t appear that they’d blocked off Fenner Road, not this end.
It wasn’t until she turned into the side street that she could see her building. The façade appeared intact, though squinting through the Merc’s huge windscreen she discerned the soot around the upper windows, the glass gone from a number of frames too. What she could see of the roof was not encouraging. Only yesterday there had been a fine, long, low-pitched roof with a row of stubby, wooden-slatted chimneys – the former smokehouse vents. Nathan was insistent that these should be restored, even if they were technically redundant. Like him, Tatty couldn’t help thinking of her one-time lover.
The nearest chimney stacks were still there, but further away they were gone. The far end of the roof appeared to have collapsed. A mess of charred beams were poking up into the ridiculously blue sky, like the burnt bones of a giant animal, a dinosaur.
Sighing heavily, though determined not to feel her age, Tatty edged the car further down the narrow road. There were a couple of extended fire service ladders, but no one on them. The fire was out, that was clear. Her spirits quickly rose. Maybe the damage wasn’t too severe. Hadn’t Frank suggested as much? Maybe the fire service had got there in good time. A bit of roof to repair, no sweat.
Nathan’s loft apartment had been on the top floor. It was where she used to fuck him. He thought he’d installed himself in her property, in her life, for good. She’d taken some pleasure in kicking him out, telling him that it was to be the new Goodwin Enterprises offices after all, not some fancy live/work space for arty types. Everything was up for grabs following Rich’s death, he had to understand that. Where his bed had been was now her desk.
A fireman, in all his dirty padded clothing and huge helmet firmly strapped to his head, appeared from nowhere and was ambling towards her, holding up his right hand. She stopped the car and he came over to her window.
‘You need to back up,’ he said. ‘There’s no access this way. The situation is not under control. The building might collapse. We can’t take any risks.’
‘Are you reading this from a fucking manual?’ Tatty said.
‘I’m doing my job. No need to speak to me like that, lady.’
Lady? He was in his late thirties, Tatty reckoned. Heavily built, but part of that might have been the clothes. Tanned, clean shaven. Startling blue eyes. Surprisingly soft-voiced. Men in uniforms were not normally her thing, but there was something very attractive about him. Sort of vulnerable as well. The gentle-minded, though tough outdoors type. She shouldn’t have spoken to him like that. He’d help save her property.
‘It’s my building,’ she said.
‘Oh, right.’ He was squinting at her. ‘You still need to back up.’
‘Heaven’s sake,’ Tatty said, pulling the key fob from the console, grabbing her bag and opening her door. Climbing out, she straightened her mac, tried to wipe some hair from her face, and smiled broadly at her handsome hero. ‘Make sure nothing happens to my car, will you?’ She handed him the keys, swerved around him and headed towards a massive insurance claim at the least. Nothing would give her more pleasure than to rip off an insurance company.
She didn’t wait for the fireman to catch her up. She’d got dressed in a hurry and under the mac she was wearing her favourite cashmere V-neck, with nothing but her bra under that, her jeans and trainers. The wind, smelling more and more burnt and toxic, was funnelling down the street, getting inside her mac, her clothes. She strode on until she reached the beginning of her building. This near corner was undamaged, even by the smoke.
By the time she’d reached the main entrance she wanted many more signs of damage. She knew that could be arranged, even if the inspectors were quick off the mark. They were always corruptible, given the right incentives. Everyone was.
It seemed the fire service had had no problem opening the main steel doors, behind which were a pair of secondary, twenty-first-century glass doors, leading to the unlit lobby. Fortunately, or not, these had not been smashed either and were sitting open and gleaming as if Goodwin Enterprises’ new HQ was ready for business.
The old offices, back on Fish Wharf, South Denes Road, were called Goodwin House. She’d decided to stick with the Smokehouse tag for the new digs. Had had it etched onto those very glass doors. She wasn’t going to ditch the name Goodwin for the business, however, and revert to her maiden name, not a chance. Using Smokehouse was enough of a sign, she felt. Another way of moving on from her husband’s death, signalling she was in charge, that it was a bright new chapter. Except now look what had happened to her plans – already.
Her first name was shouted loud and clear. She looked away from the entrance and the few firemen milling about. There was a special constable doing not a lot as well. No one had stopped her from walking this way, getting this near. She wondered whether the man with the clear blue eyes was still minding her car. She wasn’t going to look over her shoulder. She tried to shake some more hair from her own eyes while looking straight on.
At the other end of Fenner Road, waiting obediently by a fluttering taped cordon, was Frank, his big bald head picking up the crisp, early morning rays.
Did he want her to waive him through? ‘Frank, what you doing standing over there?’ she said approaching. ‘Lost your bottle?’ She could see his Ranger Rover slung on other side of Salmon Road.
‘I’m not wearing the right shoes,’ he said.
Tatty looked down at his shiny brown loafers – they could have been slippers. At her own trainers, which were soaked and filthy from walking only a few metres. She glanced back at the street, caught the puddles of oily water, dollops of deflating foam here and there. ‘I’ve seen you wading through mud thigh-deep,’ she said.
‘Besides, a couple of the guys, firemen, moonlight for me at the club – door stuff, mainly. I didn’t want to get in their way. Thought I’d wait for you here. Should have known you’d have come the other way.’
‘What’s that meant to mean?’ The wind seemed to be dying by the minute, but her hair was still in her face.
‘You keep people on their toes, Tatiana Goodwin. It’s a good thing.’
She smiled. ‘Mess, isn’t it?’ They were still either side of the tape. She wasn’t going to climb over.
Frank exhaled. ‘Whoever did it, didn’t do a very good job. It looks worse than it is, I reckon.’
‘So you said.’
‘You know what the authorities are like. They’ll make a meal out of anything. The roof’s not looking too good, though – not from here. But that building isn’t going to collapse. Do you see any damage on the ground floor?’
‘Could be at the back,’ Tatty said.
‘The building is thinner than it’s taller. Don’t think fire works that way. The blaze was started higher up, I bet you. What did they do that for?’
‘Maybe it was the electrics,’ Tatty said, still trying to get more hair from her face, wondering whether she should have a trim, as she’d been planning. Not at all sure she wanted it to be the electrics – even if that might have made an insurance claim easier. She was spoiling for a fight, she realised. The spring had been too calm, fortunate, easy. Maybe she’d been waiting for something like this to happen.
‘Be good if we decided what we wanted out of this before they come up with their bureaucratic bullshit,’ Frank said. ‘The minute local CID realises who owns the building, the investigators will be all over it.’
‘You think they don’t know already? Besides, you and I know how easy it is to get around those sorts of officials,’ Tatty said. ‘Still, the fire service must have got here pretty quick.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Do you know how it was reported?’
‘Not yet,’ said Frank.
‘What about our files, our equipment? My office was on the top floor, Frank.’
‘You think we’re going to miss them?’ he said. ‘We should never have moved them over. Be a bloody good job if they’ve been destroyed. I always said the cleaner the move the better.’
‘And that wouldn’t have looked suspicious? To HMRC? A business with no paperwork, no records? We’re not shutting the enterprise down and starting again, not as far as they’re concerned.’
‘We might be able to now.’
She could sense a large, dark cloud sailing across the back of her brain. ‘Why am I thinking that someone was in my new office, snooping around, before they set fire to the place?’
‘Because you’re smart,’ Frank said, nodding, but as if she wasn’t particularly smart. ‘We need to get in there, see if we can work out if anything might be missing. Soon as.’
‘Whoever did this,’ Tatty said, pulling the belt on her mac tighter, ‘doesn’t know how we work.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That we’re going to be stupid enough to leave the wrong sort of paper trail.’
Frank looked at her as if she still wasn’t the smartest button in the box. ‘Maybe it wasn’t a work thing.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘That it was personal.’
‘What’s the difference, in our world?’ Tatty caught Frank’s eye, a smile beginning to creep across his large mouth. ‘It’s a slight, Frank, however you look at it.’
‘A slight?’ Frank said. ‘Biggest disrespect I’ve seen in a while.’ He climbed over the tape. ‘Let’s see if we can get anywhere with this lot. We can’t stand around on the sidelines all morning. It’s your building.’
‘Yes,’ said Tatty, ‘it is my building. Which of those firemen are in your pocket?’ One of them in particular, she hoped.